A yearlong investigation by The Caucus and Spotlight PA found that Pennsylvania lawmakers across the state “are shielding sometimes lavish campaign spending by not reporting the details to the public, making it extremely difficult for voters and donors to assess how the money was spent and if that spending was appropriate.” The investigation found that from 2016 through 2018, “state House and Senate candidates spent nearly $3.5 million that cannot be fully traced based on the information they publicly disclosed, according to thousands of pages of records obtained by the news organizations.” Spotlight PA is an independent, nonpartisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer. Its partners include LNP Media Group and The Caucus, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and PennLive/The Patriot-News. The Caucus is an LNP Media Group watchdog publication that focuses on state government. The four Caucus staff members who carried out this investigation were Caucus bureau chief Brad Bumsted, Mike Wereschagin, Sam Janesch and Paula Knudsen. They were joined by Angela Couloumbis of the Inquirer/Spotlight PA.
The people you trust with your money — your spouse, close relatives, perhaps your financial adviser — surely do not hide what they do with it.
If, for instance, they ran up credit card bills without detailing their expenses, you wouldn’t trust them anymore, right?
That’s essentially what state lawmakers have done with the cash donated to their campaigns.
On Tuesday, newspapers across the state — including LNP | LancasterOnline — began publishing the Caucus and Spotlight PA investigative series into how lawmakers spend and report campaign dollars.
That very day, lawmakers tried to bury their shadowy campaign spending practices even more deeply.
As The Caucus and Spotlight PA reported, lawmakers “quietly tucked a new provision into a lengthy voting reform bill that could make it even harder for the public to access those expenses. The change would remove oversight from the Department of State and leave it up to politicians to respond to requests.”
Had the measure succeeded, members of the public, or news organizations, would have been forced to sue in court if campaigns refused a request.
This, as The Caucus and Spotlight PA noted, would be “a potentially expensive and lengthy process." Campaigns could also deny citizens access if they made multiple requests for the same records.
We’d like to say this is unbelievable. But, in reality, this is par for the course for Pennsylvania lawmakers.
And it was only because of the reporting of a team of dedicated investigative journalists that lawmakers abandoned the measure.
Caught red-handed, we’d like to think the lawmakers were red in the face, but we doubt it. Shamelessness is kind of their thing.
Crab balls and Tony Orlando
How else to explain the use of campaign spending for what The Caucus and Spotlight PA described as “foreign trips, sports tickets, limos, lavish dinners, fine wines and liquor, country club memberships and a DNA test kit.”
In all, the journalists found more than 4,800 instances of obscured spending by nearly 300 campaigns.
The obscured items included a $146 promotional photo with the 1970s trio Tony Orlando and Dawn. A $10 ultraviolet blacklight detector for dog urine, bed bugs and pet stains. A $5,184 trip to Las Vegas. Nearly $3,800 in booze and hors d’oeuvres (that’s a lot of crab balls) for a former state senator’s birthday gathering.
And this: $2,123 worth of wine shipped from Napa Valley, California, to southeastern Pennsylvania.
Former Sen. Chuck McIlhinney, R-Bucks, charged his campaign for both a DNA test kit ($109) and all that California wine.
We wonder how he feels about House Resolution 521, which seeks to declare October as “Wine, Wineries and Grapes Month” in Pennsylvania.
The former lawmaker told the investigative reporters that itemizing the expenses would “creat(e) a lot of work for the campaign staff.”
“I don’t know why we’d have to get too specific,” McIlhinney said, adding, “These aren’t tax dollars.”
Terry Mutchler, a First Amendment lawyer and former director of the state Office of Open Records, said that’s no excuse.
“It seems to me that when somebody digs deep into their pockets to contribute to a political campaign, my guess is that they want it to be for policy as opposed to ensure that someone gets beers and brats in Germany,” Mutchler said. “A 12th grader can figure out that there is a problem here and that it leaves room for gaming the system.”
We’re guessing that’s the point.
Grand tour of Europe
Pennsylvania’s most powerful lawmaker has most egregiously exploited Pennsylvania’s weak campaign finance rules.
That would be Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, a Republican from rural northern Pennsylvania.
Scarnati spent $246 to eat dinner at an ancient restaurant in Salzburg, Austria, said to be frequented by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Christopher Columbus — neither of whom could be considered key to Scarnati’s reelection.
Nevertheless, as The Caucus and Spotlight PA reporters found, Scarnati ate at St. Peter Stiftskulinarium restaurant 43 days before Election Day in 2016 — 4,300 miles from his constituents — and charged his meal to his campaign credit card. He also charged other stops on his European trip, including $1,295 on lodging in Germany, and $152 for a meal in Bruges, Belgium.
“Scarnati’s campaign obscured the most spending during the period reviewed,” The Caucus and Spotlight PA reporters noted.
Scarnati traveled to Europe with McIlhinney and former Republican Sen. Richard Alloway — and campaign donors. They landed in London, and made stops in Belgium and Austria before ending up in Munich, during Oktoberfest. The trip’s total cost: at least $15,300.
Scarnati, Alloway and McIlhinney declined to identify to The Caucus and Spotlight PA the donors who joined them or their precise itineraries. “They also gave varying explanations for the trip’s purpose,” the reporters noted.
McIlhinney was then the chairman of the Senate Law and Justice Committee, which oversees the liquor industry. He was instrumental in passing — just weeks before this big European adventure — legislation that allowed for the sale of wine in some grocery and convenience stores, and the direct shipments of wine to people’s homes.
“After I made the changes, I went and pursued some of the larger national corporations that we were dealing with … the wine people, the liquor people, the beer guys,” McIlhinney said. “We were in pursuit of high-end donors.”
But he insisted there was no quid pro quo involved.
“This seems to be on the margin even by Pennsylvania standards,” Christopher Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, said of that trip. “You would hope that elected officials, even when they say legally they could, ethically (they) wouldn’t.”
Such hope would be in vain.
The Caucus and Spotlight PA investigation also found that Scarnati’s campaign — alone among the dozens of campaigns contacted — issued credit cards to two taxpayer-funded government employees with no official role in that campaign.
One of the Senate staffers has charged at least $68,875 since late 2015 to her campaign-issued credit card for food and drinks, including dozens of lunches and dinners at restaurants and bars around the state.
The expenses sometimes were described in records as “staff lunches” or legislative employee gatherings. Some of the expenses had no explanation at all. None of the receipts were itemized.
In response to emailed questions from the investigative reporters, this staffer said she is authorized to use the credit card for spreading political goodwill.
For some reason, it doesn’t inspire goodwill in us.
‘The spirit and the letter’
Lawrence Tabas, a lawyer and chairman of the state GOP who responded on Scarnati’s behalf, said all of the expenses were related to campaigning and descriptions of them on public forms were “adequate.”
Scarnati’s “committee has complied fully with both the spirit and the letter of the law,” Tabas said.
That’s the problem. Pennsylvania’s campaign finance law is pathetic.
The Caucus and Spotlight PA found that our lawmakers operate under some of the weakest campaign finance laws in the United States.
Pennsylvania is the only state that does not limit contributions to campaigns and does not explicitly ban spending campaign cash for personal use.
The journalists noted that Pennsylvania state lawmakers “have dismissed efforts to impose more restrictions, arguing they are unnecessary as long as details about where the money comes from, and how it is spent, are available to the public.”
They are available, sure. To anyone with the resources of a team of professional journalists working diligently over the course of a year.
Scarnati’s campaign took six months — six months — to provide records to those journalists. And then had the gall to request that reporters pay $1,800 to reimburse the campaign’s accountant for the time she spent assembling them.
The campaign only backed down after a lawyer working on behalf of The Caucus intervened with the Department of State.
Again, we wish we could say we were shocked.
Here are the weaknesses in Pennsylvania’s campaign finance law identified by The Caucus and Spotlight PA:
— According to Pennsylvania election law, “campaign accounts must be used for ‘influencing the outcome of an election.’ But what qualifies is largely open to interpretation, and the Department of State, which oversees campaigns, has almost no enforcement power.”
— “Just three people in the Pennsylvania Department of State are responsible for keeping track of roughly 3,000 registered campaign committees and upwards of 10,000 to 12,000 campaign finance filings in busy election years.”
That agency’s power is only administrative; it has no authority to issue advisory opinions or impose fines beyond a $10-per-day late fee for reports.
— Campaigns are supposed to keep “vouchers” of their spending for the previous three years, and are supposed to make them available upon request. The Department of State interprets vouchers to mean receipts, but there’s no requirement they be itemized — and, unbelievably, there’s no penalty if the candidates don’t keep them on file.
This is in contrast to federal law, which requires candidates for federal office to itemize credit card expenses so spending can’t be obscured.
— And the kicker: “Tightening restrictions and improving disclosure in Pennsylvania ... would require the approval of the very same legislators taking advantage of the current rules.”
House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, a Republican from Lancaster County, was the only legislative leader who immediately turned over itemized receipts of his campaign’s spending to The Caucus and Spotlight PA.
“Most of Cutler’s spending had already been reported on his public forms,” the investigative journalists noted.
And Cutler had only $5,292 worth of expenses that were vaguely described as “reimbursements.”
“I approach donor money very similar to how I approach taxpayer money,” he said. “You've entrusted me with it for the purposes of reelection. And so I try to ensure that it has a nexus to that.”
We wish his colleagues had the same ethical approach.
For nearly a decade, Democratic Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa has been pressing for reform of Pennsylvania’s campaign finance law.
As The Caucus and Spotlight PA published its exhaustive investigation last week, Costa said he would introduce comprehensive reform legislation that would set limits on political contributions, mandate greater transparency and ban candidates from using campaign cash for their personal benefit.
On Twitter on Friday, Scarnati said he stands with Costa on the need to strengthen “the current law to improve transparency.”
We will hold him to it.
But any such reform won’t work unless, as The Caucus and Spotlight PA pointed out, staffing is beefed up at the Department of State.
The agency needs more employees to oversee compliance with campaign finance laws. Whether it gets them will be the true measure of whether lawmakers mean it when they say they favor more transparency.